Kendal’s hidden gem is the Museum of Lakeland Life & Industry (MOLLI), which recreates how rural people lived, worked and played in the past and by doing so challenges its visitors’ perceptions of what life was like in one of the most beautiful parts of the UK.
MOLLI is in Abbot Hall’s eighteen century coach house and stables. Seven hundred years earlier, commercial sheep farming by local monks helped create a thriving wool industry. This is reflected in Kendal’s motto ‘Pannus mihi panis’ meaning ‘cloth is my bread.’
It was the Cumbrian climate that ensured that sheep — as well as cows — were locally more suited than the growing of arable crops. Meanwhile, with Cumbria being so remote from London, nobles were frequently absent from home and this encouraged them to sell their land.
The result was it became easier for some local farmers to swap from being tenant to land owning ‘Statesman’ farmers. The nineteenth century bedroom of a statesman farmer is amongst one of the permanent period rooms at MOLLI. Others include a chemists and printers as well as a farmhouse kitchen from a typical Cumbrian eighteenth century farm.
These are certainly worth viewing but what really brings the museum to life is its desire — which was so passionately expressed by Rachel Roberts, assistant curator on collections and access, during our visit — to preserve and tell the stories of the 99 per cent of ordinary working people who live and die without leaving anything behind.
Display boards tell the history of how Cumbria’s minerals — zinc, lead, copper included — were first plundered by the Romans. Then how later on local mines attracted workers from across Britain and Europe with the German mining engineer Daniel Hechstetter granted permission in 1565 by Elizabeth I to melt ‘all manner of mines and ores of gold, silver and copper’ around Keswick and Coniston.
Another important local industry was shoemaking and the Kendal Cordwainer’s Guild was established in the seventeenth century to ‘protect mutual interests.’ Leather sold in the town was officially marked and no one outside the guild was to sell similar products. This was an early form of trade unionism.
The Lake District’s woodlands have for many centuries been coppiced as a method of harvesting trees. Quick growing trees such as oak and ash can be cut down to their shoots and within 15-40 years they can be as tall as 6 metres high. Once harvested they were used in local industries and of which the most important was bobbin mills, totalling 64 in the mid nineteenth century.
Bobbins were in massive demand during the industrial revolution and it is estimated that in Burnley alone there was as many as 20 million bobbins turning on the cotton-weaving machines at any one time.
“Bobbin making was a huge employer of local labour,” explains Rachel “but as people moved into the towns during the industrial revolution there was also chemical and paint making.
“Because of Cumbria’s remoteness there was additionally, until the railways really took off, a greater self reliance. This meant that virtually every product you can think of was manufactured, with small workshops servicing the larger ones. There was also domestic work in people’s private homes and farms.”
John Ruskin‘s first publication was his originally entitled 1829 poem Lines written at the Lakes in Cumberland. In the mid-1850s he taught drawing classes at the Working Men’s College in London and following which he was drawn towards social issues. Ruskin College in Oxford was established to provide educational opportunities for working-class men in 1899, a year before his death.
Ruskin lived near Coniston from 1871 till 1890. During his time he inspired the founding of the Langdale Linen Industry and the Keswick School of Industrial Art, which was opened in 1884 to alleviate unemployment by teaching metalwork and wood carving. “The aim was improve people’s skills such that they would enjoy making quality products, some of which we on display here, that everyone could buy. Sadly the production costs meant the goods were only affordable by well off people. This left Ruskin disappointed,” says Rachel.
Arthur Ransome was first educated in Windermere. He is best known for writing the Swallows and Amazons children’s book series that are centred around the Lake District and Norfolk Broads. Years previously, Ransome covered the Bolshevik Revolution for a radical newspaper, the Daily News. He became close to a number to a number of Soviet leaders including Lenin and Trotsky, whose personal secretary became Ransome’s wife. There is a very interesting permanent display on Ransome within the museum.
Over the winter, MOLLI, which attracts around a thousand visitors a month, held an exhibition of Joseph Hardman’s photographs. http://www.unitetheunion.org/growing-our-union/education/bookofthemonth/march-2017/
This has been followed by Fun on the Fells: Walking and Climbing in the Lake District. This will run till 28 October and features early climbing pioneers through to the politics of right to roam in which one of Unite’s great heroes Benny Rothman will feature.
“We would be delighted to welcome trade unionists to the museum and would welcome the support of branches within Unite, particularly those in the North west,” said Rachel.